First, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that the U.S. should stay out of Syria to avoid another Iraq. Now, a new wisdom is emerging: Syria will become the next Iraq; the Obama administration’s nonintervention is making it inevitable.
There are two different concerns at play emerging in the Washington discourse. The first perspective concerns the U.S. military and the palpable feeling inside the Beltway that the top brass and their commander-in-chief have no appetite for entering Syria’s civil war. It is a too-complex conflict, they argue, fueled by external fighters across the volatile Middle East and up to NATO’s border and carries real geopolitical and deadly threat concerns tracing back to the heart of Tehran.
The new perspective, however, is that the West missed the launch window, badly. Washington standoffishness has only permitted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to survive and slowly bleed out the rebel movement and tens of thousands of Syrian civilians. The movement is now muddied with foreign fighters with one common goal – topple Assad — and little else in common planned for the next day. By now, the civil war has gone on long enough that, like Iraq once was post-2003, Syria has become a magnet for terrorists, anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli jihadists, and other forces. Just months after Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno predicted a rebel victory, former U .S. ambassador to Syria Ryan Crocker told Defense One that Assad will win “yard by bloody yard.” The only certainty: the Pentagon’s and NATO’s sharply-honed “stability operations” forces are nowhere in sight.
Syria is chaos. So if the U.S. is “drawn in” now, the new wisdom portends, then the risks of another Iraq are even greater than had western forces jumped on Assad, say, one year ago. Listen to Amb. Dennis Ross, who told Defense One, “There is a greater risk of being drawn in at a certain point when the situation is worse, the options are worse and the price goes up.” Ross told Gayle Tzemach Lemmon that Syria already is a magnet for foreign jihadi fighters, which has not boded well historically. Syria already looks like Afghanistan in the 1980s, he said. Now, his fear is not that it will be the next Iraq (where foreigners fought foreigners) rather it could be the next Yemen (where foreign jihadists gather to strike out at the entire Middle East). That’s probably the real “red line” for President Obama and the Joint Chiefs, for sending U.S. troops into Syria. “If Syria at some point becomes like Yemen, we will be sucked in, there is no doubt,” Ross said.
[Related: Want Syria? Convince General Dempsey]
Ross’s analysis came right before Gen. Martin Dempsey, Joint Chiefs chairman, sent another letter to Congress, on Aug. 19, explaining again (and again) why he feels the U.S. military is not the best tool in the U.S. foreign policy tool kit for Syria. First off, he insisted, the generals are not scared of a fight. “Your military leaders are not reticent, weary or risk averse,” Dempsey wrote to Rep. Eliot Engel, D-NY, ranking minority member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. What the brass are saying, however, is that they are “experienced” enough to know better. “We are experienced in complex conflict, realistic about the cost we incur in blood and treasure when we apply the military instrument of national power, and we are pragmatic about the limits of military force.” In other words: No thank you, again.
But in this latest letter, Dempsey explains in a new way, for him, at least, that there is no “side” for the Pentagon to choose to back in Syria; none that is ready to lead once the fighting is done, at least. Instead, he wants to help Syria’s neighbors handle the refugees, contain the war to within Syria’s borders, and ramp up humanitarian aid. Also… the top military officer wants the U.S. to do more to build a moderate opposition in Syria.
“We could, if asked to do so, significantly increase our effort to develop a moderate opposition,” he said.
That’s not the military fight many are looking for. But it’s at least a mission.